RALEIGH — It was the morning theyd all been waiting for.
Early Saturday, 45 athletes with intellectual disabilities and skills in cycling, bowling, soccer, tennis, track and field and more loaded up onto 11 Cessnas for a 1.5-hour flight to New Jersey for the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games.
The competition only occurs every four years, and the first was in 2006. Only athletes with a state-level medal can enter a drawing.
This year, the 45 contestants were selected from more than 38,000 Special Olympics North Carolina athletes, and will compete against about 3,500 athletes from around the country. The team has been training since October.
Im looking forward to playing golf and doing my best, said Richard Kreiselman, a 34-year-old athlete from Durham. He also went to the games in Iowa in 2006, where he competed in track and field.
I have fun doing it, he said. I meet new people and see friends.
Getting to the national level is a huge honor, said Megan ODonnell, vice president of communications for Special Olympics North Carolina. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them, she said. Theyve worked hard to get there. This experience is one they will cherish and remember their entire lives.
Plane engines began to rumble at Raleigh-Durham International Airport as Donald Gulbrandsen helped three athletes and their coach board his private Cessna for their stylish voyage.
Gulbrandsen also flew athletes for the games in 2010, the year he bought his plane. Other Cessnas were provided this year by companies including CVS Caremark, Duke Energy and Lord Corp.
It sounded like a wonderful opportunity to participate in something special, he said, adding with a smile, We hope our team wins.
Athletes Destiny Belcher, Edith Caraway and Tia Critchfield and coach ALisa Tello boarded the plane and settled into their seats. Gulbrandsen and his daughter, Kate, handed out drinks and snacks.
OK, we have Coke Zero and we have water, Gulbrandsen said. The athletes accepted the snacks and grinned with excitement.
For Ghree Lockard, a 30-year-old bocce ball player from Winston-Salem, the trip meant not only her first national games, but her first plane trip.
I was nervous a little bit when it was far away, but now that its closer Im excited for it, Lockard said. Like a kid at a candy store, Ive never been this close to an airplane or in an airport.
She looked forward to going above the clouds, she said. Her cousin once told her they look like cotton balls.
Once the athletes reach New Jersey, the red carpet treatment wont stop, ODonnell said.
Its just such an amazing experience the week they are there, meeting athletes from all over the country, all kinds of amazing things they get to see and do, and the celebrities they will be able to meet, ODonnell said. They deserve it.
She said the games are a chance for the athletes to make their communities proud and to show people how much they can do.
They are all very aware that this is a real honor to represent our state, she said. To showcase their skills on a national level is an opportunity to educate that many Americans that these athletes can exceed in their sports.
The opening ceremony will be 4:30 to 6 p.m. Sunday at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. It will be live-streaming from www. 2014specialolympics.org. The games will run through Saturday.